Neuron-glia interactions play a critical role in the maturation of neural circuits; however, little is known about the pathways that mediate their communication in the developing CNS. We investigated neuron-glia signaling in the developing retina, where we demonstrate that retinal waves reliably induce calcium transients in Müller glial cells (MCs). During cholinergic waves, MC calcium transients were blocked by muscarinic acetylcholine receptor antagonists, whereas during glutamatergic waves, MC calcium transients were inhibited by ionotropic glutamate receptor antagonists, indicating that the responsiveness of MCs changes to match the neurotransmitter used to support retinal waves. Using an optical glutamate sensor we show that the decline in MC calcium transients is caused by a reduction in the amount of glutamate reaching MCs. Together, these studies indicate that neurons and MCs exhibit correlated activity during a critical period of retinal maturation that is enabled by neurotransmitter spillover from retinal synapses.
Oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) express NMDA receptors (NMDARs) and form synapses with glutamatergic neurons throughout the CNS. Although glutamate influences the proliferation and maturation of these progenitors in vitro, the role of NMDAR signaling in oligodendrogenesis and myelination in vivo is not known. Here, we investigated the consequences of genetically deleting the obligatory NMDAR subunit NR1 from OPCs and their oligodendrocyte progeny in the CNS of developing and mature mice. NMDAR-deficient OPCs proliferated normally, achieved appropriate densities in gray and white matter, and differentiated to form major white matter tracts without delay. OPCs also retained their characteristic physiological and morphological properties in the absence of NMDAR signaling and were able to form synapses with glutamatergic axons. However, expression of calcium-permeable AMPA receptors (AMPARs) was enhanced in NMDAR-deficient OPCs. These results suggest that NMDAR signaling is not used to control OPC development but to regulate AMPAR-dependent signaling with surrounding axons, pointing to additional functions for these ubiquitous glial cells.
The ability to investigate the electrophysiological properties of individual cells in acute brain tissue led to the discovery that many glial cells have the capacity to respond rapidly to neuronal activity. In particular, a distinct class of neuroglial cells known as NG2 cells, which exhibit many of the properties that have been described for glial subtypes such as complex cells, polydendrocytes, synantocytes and GluR cells, express ionotropic receptors for glutamate and GABA. In both gray and white matter, NG2 cells form direct synaptic junctions with axons, which enable transient activation of these receptors. Electrophysiological analyses have shown that these neuron-glia synapses exhibit all the hallmarks of ‘classical’ neuron-neuron synapses, including rapid activation, quantized responses, facilitation and depression, and presynaptic inhibition. Electron microscopy indicates that axons form morphologically distinct junctions at discrete sites along processes of NG2 cells, suggesting that NG2 cells are an overt target of axonal projections. AMPA receptors expressed by NG2 cells exhibit varying degrees of Ca(2+) permeability, depending on the brain region and stage of development, and in white matter NG2 cells have also been shown to express functional NMDA receptors. Ca(2+) influx through AMPA receptors following repetitive stimulation can trigger long term potentiation of synaptic currents in NG2 cells. The expression of receptors with significant Ca(2+) permeability may increase the susceptibility of NG2 cells to excitotoxic injury. Future studies using transgenic mice in which expression of receptors can be manipulated selectively in NG2 cells have to define the functions of this enigmatic neuron-glia signaling in the normal and diseased CNS.
Caged neurotransmitters are useful photochemical tools for selective stimulation of synapses and other transmitter receptors. Before illumination, the caged compound is biologically inert. Photolysis breaks a covalent bond, liberating the caged neurotransmitter. Release can be rapid, so the resultant synaptic stimulation can mimic a natural one (Matsuzaki et al., 2001). Uncaging does not replace traditional electrode stimulation; rather, it is a useful complement to it for several reasons: (1) a single transmitter is normally photoreleased, (2) stimulation of voltage-gated ion channels is not required for transmitter release, (3) receptors at many synapses can be activated simultaneously according to the area (or volume) of illumination, (4) unnatural amino acids can be photoreleased, and (5) subquantal or supraquantal neurotransmitter release is feasible.
Astrocytes undergo elevations in intracellular calcium following activation of metabotropic receptors, which may trigger glutamate secretion and excitation of surrounding neurons. In this issue of Neuron, Fiacco et al. use transgenic mice that express a foreign G(q)-coupled receptor in astrocytes to show that selective stimulation of astrocytes is not sufficient to induce the release of glutamate.
Directed fusion of transmitter-laden vesicles enables rapid intercellular signaling in the central nervous system and occurs at synapses within gray matter. Here we show that action potentials also induce the release of glutamate from axons in the corpus callosum, a white matter region responsible for interhemispheric communication. Callosal axonsreleaseglutamate by vesicular fusion, which induces quantal AMPA receptor-mediated currents in NG2(+) glial progenitors at anatomically distinct axo-glial synaptic junctions. Glutamaterelease from axons was facilitated by repetitive stimulation and could be inhibited through activation of metabotropic autoreceptors. Although NG2(+) cells form associations with nodes of Ranvier in white matter, measurements of conduction velocity indicated that unmyelinated fibers are responsible for glutamatergic signaling with NG2(+) glia. This activity-dependent secretion of glutamate was prevalent in the developing and mature mouse corpus callosum, indicating that axons within white matter both conduct action potentials and engage in rapid neuron-glia communication.
Rapid signaling between vertebrate neurons occurs primarily at synapses, intercellular junctions where quantal release of neurotransmitter triggers rapid changes in membrane conductance through activation of ionotropic receptors. Glial cells express many of these same ionotropic receptors, yet little is known about how receptors in glial cells become activated in situ. Because synapses were thought to be the sole provenance of neurons, it has been assumed that these receptors must be activated following diffusion of transmitter out of the synaptic cleft, or through nonsynaptic mechanisms such as transporter reversal. Two recent reports show that a ubiquitous class of progenitors that express the proteoglycan NG2 (NG2 cells) engage in rapid signaling with glutamatergic and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic neurons through direct neuron-glia synapses. Quantal release of transmitter from neurons at these sites triggers rapid activation of aminomethylisoxazole propionic acid (AMPA) or GABA(A) receptors in NG2 cells. These currents exhibit properties consistent with direct rather than spillover-mediated transmission, and electron micrographic analyses indicate that nerve terminals containing clusters of synaptic vesicles form discrete junctions with NG2 cell processes. Although activation of AMPA or GABA(A) receptors depolarize NG2 cells, these receptors are more likely to serve as routes for ion flux rather than as current sources for depolarization, because the amplitudes of the synaptic transients are small and the resting membrane potential of NG2 cells is highly negative. The ability of both glutamate and GABA to influence the morphology, physiology, and development of NG2 cells in vitro suggests that this rapid form of signaling may play important roles in adapting the behavior of these cells to the needs of surrounding neurons in vivo.
Glutamate transporters (GluTs) prevent the accumulation of glutamate and influence the occupancy of receptors at synapses. The ability of extrasynaptic NMDA receptors and metabotropic glutamate receptors to participate in signaling is tightly regulated by GluT activity. Astrocytes express the highest density of GluTs and dominate clearance away from these receptors; synapses that are not associated with astrocyte processes experience greater mGluR activation and can be exposed to glutamate released at adjacent synapses. Although less abundant, neuronal transporters residing in the postsynaptic membrane can also shield receptors from the glutamate that is released. The diversity in synaptic morphology suggests a correspondingly rich diversity of GluT function in excitatory transmission.
Antibodies against the chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan NG2 label a subpopulation of glial cells within the CNS, which have a small cell body and thin radiating processes. Physiological recordings from these small cells in acute brain slices have revealed that they possess unique properties, suggesting that they may comprise a class of glial cells distinct from astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, or microglia. NG2-expressing glial cells (abbreviated as “NG2 cells” here) have a moderate input resistance and are not dye- or tracer-coupled to adjacent cells. They express voltage-gated Na+, K+ and Ca2+ conductances, though they do not exhibit regenerative Na+ or Ca2+ action potentials due to the much larger K+ conductances present. In addition to voltage-gated conductances, they express receptors for various neurotransmitters. In the hippocampus, AMPA and GABAA receptors on these cells are activated by release of transmitter from neurons at defined synaptic junctions that are formed with CA3 pyramidal neurons and GABAergic interneurons. These rapid forms of neuron-glial communication may regulate the proliferation rate of NG2 cells or their development into mature oligodendrocytes. These depolarizing inputs may also trigger the release of neuroactive substances from NG2 cells, providing feedback regulation of signaling at neuronal synapses. Although the presence of Ca2+ permeable AMPA receptors provides a pathway to link neuronal activity to Ca2+ dependent processes within the NG2 cells, these receptors also put these cells at risk for glutamate-associated excitotoxicity. This vulnerability to the sustained elevation of glutamate may underlie ischemic induced damage to white matter tracts and contribute to cerebral palsy in premature infants.
Fast excitatory neurotransmission in the central nervous system occurs at specialized synaptic junctions between neurons, where a high concentration of glutamate directly activates receptor channels. Low-affinity AMPA (alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl isoxazole propionic acid) and kainate glutamate receptors are also expressed by some glial cells, including oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs). However, the conditions that result in activation of glutamate receptors on these non-neuronal cells are not known. Here we report that stimulation of excitatory axons in the hippocampus elicits inward currents in OPCs that are mediated by AMPA receptors. The quantal nature of these responses and their rapid kinetics indicate that they are produced by the exocytosis of vesicles filled with glutamate directly opposite these receptors. Some of these AMPA receptors are permeable to calcium ions, providing a link between axonal activity and internal calcium levels in OPCs. Electron microscopic analysis revealed that vesicle-filled axon terminals make synaptic junctions with the processes of OPCs in both the young and adult hippocampus. These results demonstrate the existence of a rapid signalling pathway from pyramidal neurons to OPCs in the mammalian hippocampus that is mediated by excitatory, glutamatergic synapses.